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September 27, 2010
During eight years of reporting on grassroots basketball, the author saw coaches, recruiting analysts and sneaker companies put the marketing of talented young athletes ahead of their development as players
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September 27, 2010

The Education Of Demetrius Walker

During eight years of reporting on grassroots basketball, the author saw coaches, recruiting analysts and sneaker companies put the marketing of talented young athletes ahead of their development as players

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In the spring of 2003 stories about the prodigious ability of 12-year-old Demetrius Walker spread through the Southern California basketball community and beyond. His name appeared on message boards at SoCalHoops, a prominent website among hoopniks, and he got his first piece of college recruiting mail, a form letter from Miami (Florida). His performance at a spring tournament in Maryland had created some buzz, but it was mostly the result of tireless promotion by his AAU coach, Joe Keller. For three years Keller, age 32, had told anyone who would listen—parents, journalists, high school coaches, college recruiters—that Demetrius was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and some were persuaded enough to pass the word along.

One man spreading the Gospel of Joe was Clark Francis, a dowdy former journalism student who had turned himself into one of the most quoted figures in basketball. Since 1983 Francis had operated a recruiting newsletter, The Hoop Scoop, out of his Louisville apartment, building a following among basketball diehards. His bulletins, which had begun as black-and-white mailers, consisted of pages and pages of notes on players Francis scouted at tournaments and camps; overwrought flattery of college and grassroots coaches; and "scoops" that weren't really scoops at all.

Francis did not play college basketball, which is apparent the minute you meet him. He is built like a Weeble, one of those egg-shaped toys that always rights itself because of the weight in its base. He is pale from all the time he spends in gyms across the U.S.—more than 200 days a year by his estimate—and talks so fast that he can be difficult to understand. Francis's lack of playing experience did not make him unique in his field. He had opinions and the means to distribute them, which was all anyone needed to become a recruiting analyst.

The bread and butter of most recruiting services, The Hoop Scoop included, are their rankings of high school players. But while other analysts, such as Bob Gibbons of All Star Report, would stop at the top 100 or 150 players, Francis's rankings seemed to go on until he ran out of names. "He'd have a list of the top underclassmen and it would go to 966," says Tom Konchalski, who publishes High School Basketball Illustrated. "It was like he was taking every name a coach gave him and putting it out there in hopes it would stick."

Konchalski and other veteran recruiting analysts liked Francis, but they drew a distinction between what they did and what he did. "Clark was more of a popularizer," Konchalski says. The other analysts felt their reputations were on the line when they ranked players—the college coaches who were their customers would know if they rated a kid highly and he couldn't play a lick—and they resisted doing national rankings. "We wanted to be able to see a kid over a period of a few years," Konchalski says. "One person can't do that nationally." But for Francis, who marketed largely to fans, there were no consequences to ranking 966 kids or putting a guard from Arizona he'd never seen play in his top 50.

Eventually Francis assembled a team of "editors" around the country to help him with rankings and his newsletters. Some were qualified independent scouts, but others were grassroots coaches, which created an obvious conflict of interest. For a spell, Francis's California editor was Dinos Trigonis, the longtime coach of the Belmont Shore Basketball Club. Not surprisingly, kids from his team appeared in Francis's rankings.

Francis would likely have remained among the minor recruiting analysts had he not moved to differentiate The Hoop Scoop from other scouting services. He was the first to rank the top eighth-graders in the country. Konchalski and Gibbons never did that, in part because the NCAA doesn't deem a player to be of age for recruiting until the 10th grade. They also considered the evaluation of kids before they reached high school too inexact a science. But Francis saw gold in going younger. He continued to push the limits, ranking sixth-graders and even fourth-graders. This innovation boosted the online Hoop Scoop's popularity and Francis's profile. He would eventually charge $499 for a year's subscription and claim that during the busy AAU tournament months of June and July, his site got nearly one million hits.

Among the largest subset of people who followed Francis's rankings were AAU coaches, and not only because some of them were on his payroll. Rankings from any scouting service, regardless of its credibility, were instruments with which to measure one's importance. If a coach had the No. 1 player in the country or several kids in the top 50, his value to the shoe companies, his popularity with college coaches and his ability to recruit new kids were enhanced.

To Joe Keller, Francis was the most important opinionmaker in America, the key to creating a national groundswell about Demetrius and Keller's team, the Inland Stars. Beginning in 2000 Keller made courting Francis a priority. He called Francis regularly with "tips" about the great players on his team, and eventually Francis took the bait.

In April 2001, in a report before the Kingwood Classic, a well-attended tournament in Houston, Francis wrote on his website, The Inland Stars in the 10-Under Division might be worth a look as well, because this top-rated team includes tremendous size with ... 5'8" Joseph Burton ... 5'8" Demetrius Walker ... and 5'5" Rome Draper. In a newsletter dated three days later, Francis wrote, The last time the Inland Stars were this good at so young an age, they had 7'0" Tyson Chandler from Compton (Dominguez) CA, 6'6" Josh Childress from Lakewood (Mayfair) CA, 6'5" Cedric Bozeman from Santa Ana (Mater Dei) CA, and 6'11" Jamal Sampson from Santa Ana (Mater Dei) CA. But this team promises to be better.... Their best player is 5'8" Demetrius Walker.... Sure some Tyson Chandler comparisons are in order, but ... Walker plays a lot harder. Also, Walker's father is 6'8" and his mother is 6'1". So his potential for growth is scary.... Unfortunately, we only got to see this team for about a quarter, because we had to go to the 15-Under Championship game.

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